February 26, 2012 is a night that haunts many. On this night in Sanford, Fla., Trayvon Martin was walking home when he was confronted and fatally shot by George Zimmerman. Florida’s Stand Your Ground law allowed Zimmerman to be released on bail and has yet to be charged.
This tragedy marked the beginning of new ideas and a stand for equality by an unlikely group – our youth. Students across the state began to rally in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death and created an organization called Dream Defenders. We have been planning and building our collective power to build a movement to speak for our underrepresented communities to protect them and bring in an era of change.
The Dream Defenders is a young organization, but have been hard at work presenting the issues affecting our communities. One such issue is the school to prison pipeline, a method in which kids are being channeled from schools into the criminal justice system. This pipeline is criminalizing our nation’s children instead of educating them. There are even juvenile facilities that are being shut down across the state, leaving children as young as eight-years-old to be forced into adult prisons, for disruptive behavior such as arriving late to class or throwing objects in the classroom.
Instead of the school staff handling the children’s misconduct, schools are relying on police officers to take kids out of an educational environment and put them in a system that will cause more harm to them. When these children grow into adults living through the never ending incarceration process, they lose the chance to be educated, to have careers, and to really reach their full potential. This greatly contributes to the fact that America has the largest incarceration percentage in the whole world. One in four of the world’s inmates are Americans and since the 1970s the incarceration rate has tripled in the United States.
On Mar. 5, Gov. Rick Scott will deliver his State of the State Address, a speech that shows Florida’s status as a state. On this day, on the steps of the Old Capital of Florida, the Dream Defenders will also be delivering a special “Welcome to the Dream Era” speech and a Community State of the State Address with speakers addressing a number of issues affecting our communities. Such issues include: voter suppression, immigration, Stand Your Ground laws and the School to Prison Pipeline.
We welcome you to the Dream Era. Join us. We are the future. We are the answer; we are the change that we have been waiting for. We will demand everything that was promised to us, while laying the foundation for a new nation created in our image. America is changing, it is shifting. It is an era propelled by black and brown youth who spent their formative years criminalized, marginalized, tossed to the side and forgotten. We found beauty in the dark; we found strength in our struggle and determination through despair.
Paula Zamudio, Dream Defenders FIU President